Authors: Melanie Brooks
A Dangerous Liaison
Copyright © 2015
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be copied or reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places, and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
My eyes were fixed on the door Cooper had just closed behind him. After dropping his bombshell he’d smiled coldly, and left the room. I hadn’t moved. I hadn’t spoken. I’d just sat there slack-jawed, stunned.
Now everything made sense. I knew why Cooper had me down in this basement alone with him. He wanted revenge. He’d already wiped out dozens of the cadets – and now it was payback time for his father’s killer.
I blew out a very long breath.
One of the victims’ faces flashed in my mind. The young girl who’d been jumped by three thugs near the Pantheon. I clenched my numb hands into tight fists trying to contain the anger that was threatening to explode from me. If I hadn’t stopped them they would have raped and killed her. They would have taken their time. I felt sick. Cooper had done that. Maybe not with his own hands but he’d given the order. Yes, he’d suffered. And he deserved some retribution. But nothing warranted what he’d done – what he still wanted to do.
The guy was a monster.
The door opened and Cooper came in and sat down on the edge of the Formica table facing me. He pulled out a packet of Marlboros and a Zippo lighter from his shirt pocket. He took a cigarette out, shoved it between his lips, lit it, and inhaled, sucking his cheeks in as he did. His left eye was still closed – and the bruises on his jaw stood out lividly. I flexed my numb hands again. What I would have given to strangle this son of a bitch! But for now I’d have to settle for words.
“You’re crazy,” I said.
He took the cigarette out of his mouth, blew the smoke in my face, and stared at me through his good eye, like he wanted to drill a hole through my skull.
“No. I’m just not a victim anymore. That sad teenage boy you knew is dead.”
I licked my lips but didn’t answer. I didn’t think that teenage boy was dead at all. I thought he was very much alive.
Cooper mustn’t have liked my silence. His cheek twitched and his lips turned up into a snarl, making him look like a gargoyle. He struggled to get his face under control.
“And what are you, Reader?” he said, finally.
I blew out a breath.
crazy. He had good cause, but over the years he’d brooded on his pain so much that it had consumed him. It was all that mattered to him now. I could understand where he was coming from. As far as he was concerned I’d ruined his life. I’d taken his girl and killed his father. Of course there was never anything between Petra and Cooper. It had all been in his mind. And I hadn’t meant to kill Robert Haslem – it had been an accident. If we hadn’t been on the project it never would have happened. But I couldn’t hide behind that excuse. Cooper was right, his father was dead because of me, and I should pay for that – but not yet.
“The cadets were
” Cooper had looked away from me, and was speaking in a monotonous, almost hypnotic voice – his eyes unfocused. “That’s what the Bureau thought. That’s what Langley and the White House believed too.”
“But that’s not how you saw them?”
, Alec.” His voice was quiet, as if he were talking to himself. “They never should have messed around with us. If they hadn’t, maybe…”
Cooper had stopped talking. His features were slack – catatonic.
“No one would have died?”
He frowned and his eyes suddenly lost that faraway look.
“Don’t try and play me, Reader. I’m not some doughy-eyed female you can twist around your little finger. As you so astutely pointed out, it’s just you and me down here. I can end you whenever I want. You would do well to remember that and not treat me like a fool.”
I stared back at him. He was right. I was helpless and alone in a locked room with a psychopathic maniac, whose father I had killed. And Cooper was no idiot. He’d proved he had brains; how else would he have risen up the ranks of the FBI so easily? “So what now?” I said.
Cooper ducked his head for a second and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then looked back at me. “I’d
to keep you down in this basement and make you suffer. But I’m not going to do that. I have a job for you.”
“What do you want?” I said, warily.
He pulled out a battered attaché case from underneath the table.
“I want you to deliver something to the American Embassy for me.”
I hustled down the corridor trying to forget how much Gabriel had let me down. At the end of the corridor I took the stairs to the next floor up. My mind was racing. But I wasn’t getting any answers. I kept coming back to the same point. Why had Cooper gone to such extreme lengths to make sure no one saw him interrogate Alec? If he thought Alec was the killer then why not involve the other agents? Surely they’d help? It just didn’t make sense. Unless Cooper had something to hide. So what the hell was his secret?
Because of his rank Cooper had an office to himself. It was on the floor above the communal office space we shared. Cooper hardly used it. He’d said he preferred to be where he could keep an eye on everyone. It was a long shot, but maybe I’d find something there that would tell me what he was really up to. Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Barging in on Cooper in the interrogation room would get me nowhere. He’d just ask another couple of agents to throw me out. And without proof that Cooper was corrupt none of them would break ranks, not even Gabriel.
I stepped onto the floor where Cooper’s office was and headed down a long corridor, checking the name on the front of each door as I went. I moved quickly, pushed on by an inner voice that told me Alec was running out of time. About halfway down the corridor I found Cooper’s office, and a few seconds later thanks to the breaking and entering skills I’d picked up over the years, I was inside.
It was a pretty ordinary-looking office. In front of me was a large desk, beyond that a window looking out over central Rome, and on my right a row of filing cabinets. That was it. No family photographs, no knickknacks no mementos from two decades of working for the Bureau – a strictly utilitarian office. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. I didn’t expect Cooper to leave anything obviously incriminating lying around. But he had been showing signs of stress recently. Maybe he’d slipped up?
I glanced at the desk. Aside from a phone it was bare. Trying to fight a bad feeling I was wasting my time, I dashed over to the filing cabinets. They were locked, of course, but I prised them open with my apartment key. I searched every one of the cabinets from top to bottom. But they were all empty. I suppose it made sense; we were only here temporarily, and Cooper hardly used this office. But that didn’t stop the wave of panic that was growing in my stomach.
Feeling desperate, I moved over to the desk. There were several drawers underneath. It was the same story here. Each of the drawers was empty – and as I slid back the last one I felt my throat tighten.
What the hell am I going to do now
Then just before the drawer slid home I noticed it was sticking. There was something underneath it. Quickly I pulled out the drawer and flipped it over. Taped to the bottom was a large Manila envelope. My heart racing, I yanked it off the bottom of the drawer, ripping the black electrical tape sticking it down. Cooper had gone to a lot of trouble to hide this. Whatever was in it he didn’t want anybody to see.
With shaking hands I opened the envelope and pulled out a dog-eared photograph.
As I stared at it my body went slack. I heard the Manila envelope I’d been holding in my left hand flop onto the desk. I was clutching the photograph tightly in my right.
It was a picture of Alec and me back when we were teenagers. Taken in the main lecture hall where we’d first heard about the project. We were standing side-by-side holding hands. But we weren’t alone. An awkward-looking, lanky kid stood on my left.
I shook my head. Why did Cooper have a picture of Alec and me hidden in his office?
I looked at that lanky kid again. Who was he? I didn’t know. Something about him was familiar, but not in a good way. For some reason, looking at him turned my stomach. But I couldn’t put my finger on why.
I studied him again. He was pale and spotty, and looked ill at ease. He had black greasy hair and was wearing a leather jacket that had seen better days. But worst of all, his arm was wrapped tightly around my shoulder.
Why did looking at this kid give me goose bumps?
Then it hit me. That geeky kid was Will Cooper.
“What is it?”
Cooper’s mouth turned up, but his eyes stayed hard.
“That’s a pretty stupid question, Alec.”
I blew out a breath.
“If you think I’m taking that case anywhere without knowing what’s inside it, you’re crazy.”
Cooper’s face went black.
“You’re going to do exactly what I say. Because if you don’t Petra will die.”
For a brief moment my stomach clenched, then I remembered I had nothing to worry about.
“You’re bluffing. You’ve just said you wouldn’t hurt Petra. And I know you’re obsessed with her.”
Cooper glared at me for a long moment.
“I won’t hurt her if you do what you’re told.”
“You won’t hurt Petra whatever I do. You still think she’s your girl.”
Cooper leaned forward and grabbed both my wrists and squeezed. His hands pushed down on the rope that had cut into my wrists. I clenched my jaw and fixed my eyes on his. Finally he spoke:
“You took Petra away from me a decade ago.”
Then he released my wrists and leaned back on the edge of the table.
“Petra has a device implanted in her heart. A kind of mini-defibrillator.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“She’s got what?”
That half smile was back on Cooper’s face again.
“She has a defibrillator in her heart. It’s a device designed to shock a sick heart back into a healthy rhythm…”
“I know what a fucking defibrillator is. But Petra’s not sick.”
“I know she’s not sick, you dumb-wit. I put it there as insurance.”
“All I have to do,” he said, picking up his cell phone with a flourish, “is speed dial her number and the defibrillator will send a shock through her heart. She’ll die instantly.”
I stared at Cooper open-mouthed for a long moment, then I laughed. It started as a giggle in the back of my throat but within seconds I was laughing uncontrollably.
“You really are one crazy son of a bitch, Cooper,” I said, my eyes watering.
Cooper’s expression hadn’t changed.
“I’m not crazy, Alec,” he said flatly.
As I stared at his face, taking in the absolute sincerity behind his dead eyes, my throat tightened. He was telling the truth.
He shook his head impatiently. “It doesn’t matter how, Alec. All that matters is that you understand I can kill Petra at the press of a button. And that I will do it if you don’t do as I ask.”
I felt like I’d been cattle-prodded. I knew the secret service got up to all sorts of dirty tricks. The KGB was well known for killing off ex-spies with radioactive material. A few years ago the Russian defector Alexander Litveneko was stabbed in the calf with an umbrella tipped with plutonium while on the London Underground. He died in agony in a hospital several weeks later. I very much doubted that the FBI and the CIA had any scruples about getting up to similar dirty tricks – or that they lacked the technology to do what Cooper had described.
I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t let Petra die. But neither could I take a case containing God knows what into the American Embassy. Going on Cooper’s track record it could be anything. And I wouldn’t be responsible for any more American deaths. Cooper interrupted my thoughts.
“Alec, I may hate you – I have good reason – but I’m a patriot. I love my country. We have intelligence that there may be an Iranian cell within the embassy. I need the case delivered by hand to Philip Seinfeld, the American ambassador. He has to be warned. Do that, then Petra won’t be harmed. I give you my word.”
“Why can’t you do it?”
“It has to be off the books. We have a mole somewhere in our department. I have to use an outsider.”
“Someone who’s deniable?”
What choice did I have? Cooper was a homicidal maniac. But he was a patriotic one. He wanted me dead, and anyone associated with the project and with the death of his father. He believed that the whole project was an atrocity, and should have been mothballed years ago. But maybe in his own way he was loyal to his country. I didn’t trust him an inch, but if I refused he’d kill Petra.
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Good,” said Cooper jauntily. “But just in case you get cold feet, know this. If I don’t hear that you delivered the case by 5:30 p.m. I will activate the defibrillator in Petra’s heart. It will release a burst of electricity which will kill her – instantly.”
I flinched. “You son of a bitch.”
“Just deliver the case,” Cooper said, ignoring me. “And everything will be okay.”
I stood holding the picture in my hand – not moving.
I knew Cooper before I joined the Bureau? He was one of the cadets on the project?
I looked at the photo again.
The young Cooper was almost unrecognizable. He still had that dimpled chin. But back then it was on a sallow, pimply face. He’d been the ultimate geeky kid. The loner who didn’t fit in with the cool crowd – but was desperate to.
I remembered now – on that day, Cooper had come out of nowhere, shoved a camera in some passer-by’s hand, and thrown his arm around my shoulder. After that day he followed me around for weeks.
Shaking my head, I picked up the Manila envelope from the desk, and tipped out the contents. Half a dozen tatty news cuttings, and a softback book – some kind of journal – fell onto the desktop. I opened up the cuttings and laid them out flat, next to the photograph of Cooper, Alec, and me, leaving the journal for later. The cuttings were from
, the local paper from my hometown.
I swallowed, then picked up the first cutting.
46-year-old father of two Robert Haslem died today in a work-related accident. His employers, Electro Corp., say the circumstances of his death are still being investigated. And their sympathies are with his family.
He is survived by his wife, Beth Haslem, and his adopted son William.
It was as if a series of doors opened in my mind. I remembered the accident. Robert Haslem was one of the lab technicians working on the project. He had died suddenly. And the circumstances of his death had been hushed up because… that was it. Alec had killed him. I’d never really understood how. All I’d known was that he’d done it without laying a finger on Mr. Haslem, and that it had been an accident. It was after that that everything had gone into meltdown. Alec had disappeared. And the program to all intents and purposes was stopped.
I ran my hand through my hair.
But what was I missing? I could understand why Cooper had a photo of himself with Alec and me. But why had he kept the newspaper cuttings about Robert Haslem?
I looked at them again.
One of the cuttings had a picture of Haslem. It was taken in the lab. He was wearing a white lab coat, smiling. His frizzy hair looked like it hadn’t been combed in a month, and…
I froze for a second in mid thought, then snatched up the photo of Cooper, Alec, and me and the newspaper cutting with Robert Haslem’s picture. I looked from the cutting to the photograph of Cooper and back again.
Then I let out a very long breath.
Cooper and Haslem had the same eyes. They had the same dimpled chin. Their mouths both curled in the same way.
, Haslem was Cooper’s father. Then I realized that couldn’t be right; they had different names. I squinted at the photo, and spotted it. A plastic rectangular name badge pinned to the front of Cooper’s sweater.
I remembered now, we all had to wear them.
I could just make Cooper’s out. But it didn’t say William Cooper. It said: